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Why a Daytona 500 breakthrough has eluded Brad Keselowski

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Like so many sublimely talented restrictor-plate drivers before him, Brad Keselowski somehow still lacks a Daytona 500 victory.

But the Team Penske driver doesn’t lack for awareness and knowledge of what it will take for a long-awaited breakthrough in the signature race, and he was reminded of the winning key while recently browsing a military handbook.

“(It was) on how to handle different things, all kinds of different game plans, strategies for attacks,” Keselowski told reporters on a national media call last week. “One of the things in the back of the book is, ‘Remember, everything here is for normally trained soldiers going up against another normally trained soldier.’ There’s no way to prepare for a kamikaze, no way to train for somebody that does crazy shit.

“I read that book and I laughed because that’s a lot how the 500 is.  Moves that should work don’t work because for whatever reason that race gets people amped up, crazy, and they do weird things. And so your normal playbook, a lot of times it doesn’t work for the 500. It’s part of the randomness of the race.”

With a series-best six wins at Daytona and Talladega, best on plate tracks among active drivers, Keselowski will enter Sunday’s Daytona 500 trying to snap a 0 for 9 record in the Great American Race – but he takes some solace in the company he keeps.

It took Dale Earnhardt, the winningest driver in Daytona history, 20 tries to win the season opener. Darrell Waltrip won in his 17th attempt. In 17 tries, Tony Stewart never won it despite four victories in the July race.

Besides Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. (0 for 14), Kyle Busch (0 for 13) and Clint Bowyer (0 for 13) are among the active notables still winless in the Daytona 500.

“I think it’s an astute observation, one that’s not lost on me,” Keselowski said of the long waits for several big names such as himself. “I think the moves that should work and normally would work on plate tracks don’t work on the 500 because of kind of the chaos of that race. It’s almost like you need a different playbook for the 500 than you do a normal plate race. I know that’s kind of hard to explain.

“A lot of your success is dictated by others specific to getting crashed out. It makes it very difficult, especially for me and probably drivers like Kyle would probably say the same thing. It makes it very difficult for us because we’ve built a playbook of things we feel good about and we know are the right moves. They’ve worked for us on the other plate tracks, and they don’t work at the 500 because of the randomness of that race. It’s frustrating.”

The 2018 season renewed the urgency of ending that frustration.

With victories at the Brickyard 400 (the first for team owner Roger Penske) and the Southern 500, Keselowski added two “major” wins to his resume, which leaves the Daytona 500 as the glaring omission.

“Last year after winning Darlington and Indianapolis, gosh, the thrill from that, I’m still kind of on a high from that,” he said. “That was almost six months ago.

“But Daytona is, of course, the 500, one major I don’t have. I feel like it’s a race we’ve been competitive at.  We had opportunities to win it.  For a number of reasons, it hasn’t come together, which is sometimes unsettling.  People ask me all the time, ‘What race is the one that got away?’  It’s the 500, has been so far. I want to change that.”

He has been close to winning several times.

In 2014, he finished third after being outdueled by Dale Earnhardt Jr on the last restart. In 2015, a blown engine eliminated his No. 2 Ford from contention with 40 laps remaining (in a race won by his teammate, Joey Logano). Crashes have knocked him out of the past two 500s with strong cars.

“(Survival) has been the hardest part for me,” Keselowski said. “I feel we’ve been good enough to win it multiple times.  We get caught up in somebody else’s wreck or problem. I think you see that a lot.

Besides the luck factor, first things first, you got to be running at the end of that race.  For whatever reason, I think maybe because it’s the first race of the year, maybe because it’s one of the biggest races of the year, I’m not entirely sure, but the Daytona 500 has traditionally been a race of very high attrition. Getting to the end has been very difficult for us.”

NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte, who was Earnhardt’s crew chief for the ’14 win and two prior runner-up finishes, said the pressure compounds the difficulty level for even the best drivers.

“The guy that wins the Daytona 500 is the one that was fortunate enough to make zero mistakes in the last 20 laps,” Letarte said. “Because it builds to a crescendo like no other race in the world. It just builds and builds and builds over three hours. And you know when you leave pit road for the last time, and you can see the energy, all the drivers know it.

“They make very few moves until they’re very calculated. In most races, you can make mistakes in the last few laps of a race and still have a chance to win it. In the Daytona 500, you just can’t.”

And it might actually be tougher for drafting aces such as Keselowski

“I think a lot of people see them as the most threat, so I think they get the least amount of help,” Letarte said. “While you would think they would get the most, I think if you have a chance to hang out any of those big names, that’s who you hang out. Because not all mistakes are a mistake, sometimes you zig, and you just know the guy behind you is going to zig, and he zags. And you’re done.”

“It’s a chess match. It’s months and months and months for one 2.5-mile lap. There is no guarantee you’re ever going to win this race. All you really do is try to be one of the players with 5 miles to go. That race builds like no other. You can just feel it every lap.”

That makes preparing for the race tricky for Keselowski, whose study of military tactics speaks to his meticulously analytical style. While the research can help in some Daytona 500s that unfold as strategical masterpieces, it’s much less effective when the races become crashfests that eliminated many contenders (which was true the past two years).

“Probably the worst thing you can do is be prepared for it because then you have preconceptions of moves that should work, and they don’t because the race is so random,” Keselowski said. “It actually gets you in more trouble. It’s a very, very difficult race to prepare for.”

But he will do so nonetheless, hoping that he can erase the agony of having the current “best plate driver without a Daytona 500” label.

“I’m definitely very frustrated,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.  But on the other side, I’m confident if we keep doing the right things, not to sound too cliché, but trust the process, it will come together.  That means you put the work in, you follow the playbook the best you know how, that we developed, try to make it count.

“I feel like the car is there, the team is there, I’m there.  We’re all ready to win this race.  Hopefully the time is now this year in 2019.”

Austin Hill wins Truck Series opener at Daytona in overtime finish

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Austin Hill won Friday’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series season opener at Daytona in an overtime finish, claiming his first career Truck Series win.

The win comes in Hill’s 52nd series start and his first with Hattori Racing Enterprises. Hill, a former member of the NASCAR Next driver program, took over for defending champion Brett Moffitt in the No. 16 Toyota.

Hill, 24, beat Grant Enfinger, Ross Chastain, Spencer Boyd and Matt Crafton in the second attempt at an overtime finish.

Hill, who is from Winston, Georgia, led 39 laps and survived a race that saw 11 cautions and 26 of 32 trucks involved in accidents.

“Man, this truck was fast,” Hill told Fox Sports 1. “I knew we had a truck that could compete. Got a little scared there at the end. I thought (Enfinger) was going to get me, he got a big run. We were able to protect it. I can’t believe my first win came at Daytona. It’s so surreal, I can’t wait to party with these guys.”

Hill’s win is the third in a row for Hattori after Moffitt won the last two races of 2018.

The overtime period was created by a wreck with two laps left in the scheduled 100-lap distance that involved 10 trucks and nearly every remaining frontrunner. The final restart was setup by a two-car incident on the first overtime attempt.

Only nine of the field’s 32 trucks took the final green flag.

“It was a crazy night … carnage everywhere,” Enfinger said. “We tore up a lot of crap tonight.”

STAGE 1 WINNER: Sheldon Creed

STAGE 2 WINNER: Johnny Sauter

Click here for the race results.

Click here for the point standings.

NOTABLE: Billy Rock, the jackman on the No. 28 of Bryan Dauzat, was awake and alert after he was hit on pit road early in the race by Dauzat, who had lost his brakes. Rock was transported to a local hospital … Angela Ruch, the niece of Derrike Cope, placed eighth in NEMCO Motorsports No. 8 truck. She is just the second woman to earn a top 10 in the Truck Series. Jennifer Jo Cobb placed sixth at Daytona in 2011.

NEXT: Active Pest Control 200 at Atlanta Motor Speedway at 4:30 p.m. ET on Feb. 23 on Fox Sports 1

Christian Eckes wins Truck Series pole at Daytona

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Christian Eckes won the pole for tonight’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series season opener at Daytona.

Driving the No. 51 Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports, Eckes posted a top speed of 182.604 mph.

It is the first career pole for 18-year-old Eckes in his fifth career start.

“I felt way more confident in our car in the draft yesterday,” Eckes told Fox Sports 1. “I really wasn’t sure where we would qualify but here we are on the pole.”

He will be joined on the front row by David Gilliland (182.556 mph).

The top five is completed by Todd Gilliland (181.686), Harrison Burton (181.357) and Grant Enfinger (181.349).

Burton will start from the rear after an engine change was made on his No. 18 Toyota on Thursday.

The race is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1.

Click here for the starting lineup.

Meet the ‘Gen 7 for NASCAR’ that could include shorter races and capped costs

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Are shorter races better? That’s a discussion taking place in NASCAR, along with the length of the season and other key topics.

“We have to keep (fans) engaged,” car owner Jack Roush said Friday at Daytona International Speedway. “We have to think about their attention spans. The races may need to get shorter.  That could be cost savings all the way around. Probably need to get shorter. 

“People say we need to race fewer times. I’m not sure that’s true. I used to tell (NASCAR Vice Chairman) Mike Helton, if he had three or four races a week, I’d be there for him. I don’t know if I’d say that today.”

Already this week, Kevin Harvick has advocated eliminating the Clash, and Denny Hamlin has noted one of the most popular events in the Olympics is the 100-meter dash instead of the marathon, a hint to shorter races

These comments have been made as the sport looks to cut costs for teams and energize fans who can become weary over a 38-race season that goes from February to November. NASCAR President Steve Phelps said last year that various ideas would be considered for the 2020 schedule and beyond. 

Car owner Roger Penske, whose organization is coming off Joey Logano’s Cup championship season, likens the sport’s look at race lengths to its focus on the next car, which is targeted to debut in 2021.

“I think we’re really talking about Gen 7 for NASCAR,” Penske said, using the term for the next car. “It’s not just the car or the engine. I think it’s the show, it’s the length of the races, it’s where we’re going to run, are we going to run more at night, short tracks. Let’s call it Gen 7 for NASCAR, not just the car.”

A shorter season could limit how many weekends NASCAR goes head-to-head against the NFL in the fall. Shorter races could provide the opportunity for midweek races. The belief from those advocating shorter races is that it would create a better show for fans.

“I think it’s an exciting time for us really in the sport,” car owner Joe Gibbs said. “You know, there’s times that you struggle, and I think we have struggled some, but I honestly think (NASCAR Chairman) Jim France is on board and after it.  I think we, having constant meetings with everybody has kind of put everything on the table. 

“We’ve got a great fan base, but I think everything is really out there, scheduling, everything that you’re talking about, cost savings, everything is on the table. And so sometimes when you go through a tough time, those wind up being the best times because it causes you to really think your way through things.”

Just as important to teams are the costs, which NASCAR continues to look to cut. There’s also been talk of some type of spending limitation for teams.

“You’re going to see other things happen with the cars, engine packages, that’s going to reduce the cost,” car owner Rick Hendrick said. “So NASCAR is really on it. When you look at it, we talk about a spending cap. I don’t know how you regulate that with all we have going on. I mean, everything is on the table.”

Bob Jenkins, car owner for Front Row Motorsports, said cost containment can make an impact for his three-car organization.

“The ultimate goal has always got to be how can we do more with less with any team,” he said. “I think some of the larger teams have felt the financial pinch maybe more so than we have. When you’re in a constant evolution mode, it’s hard for us to keep up. We can make suspension changes a few times a year. Like Roger said, we can’t change cars every week.

“In previous years, we were always a generation or two behind and it shows on our performance. I think now when they come with these common parts that are produced by a third-party manufacturer that can’t be tweaked or re-engineered it only helps a team like us.”

Menard, McMurray, Stenhouse fastest in second Cup practice at Daytona

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Paul Menard (200.758 mph) was fastest in Friday’s second Cup practice session at Daytona International Speedway.

Jamie McMurray in his Chevrolet Camaro was second-fastest (200.696 mph) and the only driver not in a Ford in the first 13 positions.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (200.664) was third-fastest, followed by Ryan Newman (200.638) and Clint Bowyer (200.588).

Sixth through 10th were Aric Almirola (200.571), Daniel Suarez (200.535), defending Cup champion Joey Logano (200.450), Ryan Blaney (200.428) and Brad Keselowski (200.428).

Only 29 of the 40 cars entered in Sunday’s Daytona 500 took part in the second practice. There is one final practice scheduled for Saturday.

Click here for the full second practice speed chart.

In the first practice session earlier in the afternoon, Kyle Busch led a Joe Gibbs Racing juggernaut.

Busch paced the 40-car field with a top speed of 200.285 mph, followed by JGR teammates Martin Truex Jr. (200.200) in second, Erik Jones in fourth (200.156) and Denny Hamlin was seventh-fastest (200.044). Ryan Preece was third-fastest in a Chevrolet at 200.169 mph, while Ryan Newman rounded out the top five at 200.093 mph.

Click here for the full first practice speed chart.

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